In a little-noticed event, on December 14 the United Nations General Assembly broke with decades of relentless attacks against Israel. On that day, it voted by an overwhelming 155 to 3, with one abstention and 25 states not voting, to express "its full support for the achievements of the peace process thus far." The resolution specifically praises the accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Israel's ambassador to the U.N. hailed this vote as "a turning point in the U.N.'s attitude toward the Middle East and Israel."
Just which were those three retrograde states voting against the resolution, and which one abstained? Iran, Syria, and Lebanon voted no; Libya abstained; Iraq was the only Arab state among those not participating.
Syria and Lebanon? Wait a minute, haven't U.S. government officials repeatedly assured us that Damascus has turned a new leaf? Or, as a senior administration official dealing with the Middle East told me recently, "Asad has made a strategic decision to make peace with Israel. His actions indicate this. The words coming out of Damascus point to this." If that's so, then what's going on?
Against the Israel-PLO accord
Actually Syria's vote in the U.N. against the Israel-PLO accord is completely consistent with recent statements by President Hafiz al-Asad. He scorns that deal as having no consequences. To an American reporter's breathless question as to whether he felt "the earth move" when Rabin and Arafat shook hands, Asad replied: "No, we did not feel the earth move. I did not consider it a significant event. Nor do I think it will have great effect."
Asad makes no bones about his dislike of the accord. "What happened was regrettable. No one expected it," he told an Egyptian newspaper, referring to the accord. On another occasion he observed that "there is nothing good in it." Nor is Asad just grousing; all the Palestinian groups he sponsors-about a dozen groups in all and including such notorious figures as George Habash, Ahmad Jibril, and Abu Nidal-are actively engaged in trying to sabotage the accord.
Further, Asad believes he can scuttle the accord should it threaten his interests. He has explicitly stated as much. The accord "cannot pose any danger to us. Had we wanted to obstruct it, we would have foiled it. If it becomes clear to us that its harm is great, we will do so." In other words, Asad has not yet made a serious effort to bring down the accord; he'll only do that when he needs to.
Before dismissing Asad's threat as idle words, it's worth remembering that this man has a long record of related accomplishments. For example, when he disliked a U.S.-brokered agreement between Israel and Lebanon in 1983-84, he scuttled it in less than a year. Nor does he boast idly. As on of his aides rightly puts it, Asad "carefully weighs every word and statement he makes. He only says what is necessary; there are no slips of the tongue."
Also very interesting, since September 13, Asad has stopped talking about the rights of Palestinians. Instead he now stresses the importance of Syria getting the Golan Heights back from Israel. In one revealing comment, worth quoting at length, he brought up statements by Israelis, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, saying in effect, "Why are you Arabs boycotting us? You have been saying the Palestine question is the core of the conflict. Here we are now, we have reached an agreement." To them, Asad responded with impatience, accusing Peres of insulting his intelligence.
Of course, we have said, and we still say, that the Palestine question is the core of the conflict. It is the core of the conflict in that it was the starting point of hostility. Hence we called it the core of the conflict, but it is not the conflict.... The Israelis know they have fought states. All the wars that were fought between Arabs and Israel were wars with states bordering Palestine. As a result of these wars, the core of the conflict that started in Palestine expanded to mean that every occupied Arab territory has become the core of the conflict.
This frank admission rips the veil of a quarter-century's hypocrisy and points to Asad's real concerns-not Palestinian nationalism but getting back the territory he personally helped lose to Israel in 1967. It also serves notice to Yasir Arafat that Asad feels free to oppose his accord with Israel.
Arafat, by the way, fully understands Asad's anger-he feels the heat as rival Palestinian leaders mock his efforts and his supporters get murdered. In protest, he complains about Asad's "intolerable interference in Palestinian affairs," but to little effect.
American officials, on the other hand, insist on seeing Syria as helpful to Israel-PLO efforts to reach an agreement. The same senior administration official quoted above observed that "the Iranians are the only ones, except for the Libyans, actively to oppose the Israel-PLO accord." It was this inability to see Damascus' opposition to the accord that lay behind the U.S. government decision, a mere eight days before the U.N. vote, to make an exception to long-standing policy and permit Syria to acquire three Boeing airliners from Kuwait. The same blindness also lay behind President Clinton's decision to meet one-on-one with Hafiz al-Asad on January 16th.
That meeting is a terrible idea. It ignores the fact that Asad responds to U.S. concessions by thumbing his nose in our face. It rewards him for sponsoring a dozen Palestinian groups trying to sabotage the Israel-PLO accord. And it signals that we tolerate his threat to scuttle one of our top foreign policy priorities.
But what to do now? After all, the Clinton-Asad meeting is already in the works. I've got an idea. January 16th would be a great date for President Clinton to come down with a sudden case of the diplomatic flu.